What makes art relevant? How can you take a two-hundred year old art form and make it accessible to a 21st century audience? How as an artist can you find echoes of your own voice in a score written centuries before your birth? Well, when you dismantle the artifice of expectation and find the voice of a character, find the heart of a relationship, and see a piece of art for what it truly is – pure emotion, and a glimpse into the soul of another human – the confusion falls away, and you are left, hopefully, only with connection.
In UNCG Opera Theatre’s upcoming production of Dialogues of the Carmelites, we as students are tasked with the surmountable undertaking of connecting our modern hearts and brains with those of French Revolutionary Carmelite nuns. None of us has ever been a nun, nor have we lived through the tumultuous and terrifying French Revolution – so how do we bring these women to life? How can we authentically tell their story and make it relevant to an audience? This is where our artistry comes in – what about these women can we connect to? Their relationships: with each other, with the outside world, with their faith, and within themselves. While none of us has had the particular experiences of our characters, we have all experienced our own trials and tribulations, frustrations and joys, and continue to thrive and grow. The human experience is a universal one, and music is a universal language; so, at the end of the day, opera is one of the most honest expressions of humanity, and it should be shown as such.
Where to begin? Well, in an opera, we have a creative team responsible for bringing the visual aspect to life. This team can greatly impact the way we as performers view not only our characters, but the way in which we interact with each other and our surroundings. Sets, props, costumes, and lighting can shift an otherwise static scene to one with higher stakes, or with wicked emotions bubbling beneath the surface. In the case of Dialogues of the Carmelites, the idea of fear and shadows has helped mold the world in which all of the characters live. Shadows can represent things that go bump in the night, or a shadowy past, or can be harbinger of dangers and dark times to come, and seeing the patterns of light and dark spilling across the stage can greatly affect the way one moves across the stage, or approaches another character.
For me, knowing where the shadows are cast, and what places on stage are shrouded in darkness or bathed in light helps inform the way my character moves around the stage. If she is afraid, then skittering from shadow to shadow will look and feel much different than if she is afraid of the shadows and slips from patch of light to patch of light. The way she moves will be vastly different depending on what she is running from or running to, and that can shift the audience’s perspective of who she is even before any singing happens.
By the time we get to delving into the score, it’s playtime. Getting to put the characters on their feet, create the relationships and flesh out the inner monologue in each moment – that is what makes this artform so special. For me, the rehearsal room is the point of it all, it’s the creative playground that allows characters and emotions to jump off of the page and out of our hearts and heads – it’s grownup make-believe. However, the stakes are so much higher than they were when we were children – the stories are more complex, the relationships often resonate deep within our own sense of self, and the music elevates it all.
UNCG SMTD Senior, mezzo-soprano Megan Callahan describes her experience in the rehearsal process, “As a vocalist one of the most exciting parts of my job is getting out of the practice room and combining what I have worked on with what my colleagues have worked on. I remember the first time I heard the entire nun chorus sing the finale during our very first sing-through and I was nearly moved to tears. Through working with my colleagues, they each influence the way I think about my character and my singing through their artistry and dramatic choices. I absolutely love working off of such a talented group of individuals as they inspire new ideas in my own choices which ultimately leads to a stronger performance. In the future, I hope to continue to be as fortunate as I have been in coming into contact with such gracious, creative, and willingly collaborative artists so that I may continue to work off of their artistic instincts.”
There is something about the music, particularly in Dialogues, that plays at one’s heartstrings in a way that is not only expected but jarring in its honesty. It is that honesty that we are charged with expressing to the audience. That honesty is universal, and makes not only us as performers think, but hopefully those in our audience as well. Again, my colleague Megan Callahan notes, “At the end of experiencing our production, I hope the audience will be able to empathize with the characters we have created and I hope they will wonder how we can avoid such religious intolerance in the future.”
And what a time in our world to think about religious intolerance, or open the discussion regarding any intolerances that prohibit us from living in a peaceful communion? This is why opera, and all art, is important, and relevant – to raise these questions in a powerfully moving way, to open the doors to discussion. And hopefully, through this art, we are able to open the eyes of our audience to see the possibility of another side, another opinion, and to take the fear out of the “other” through recognizing the myriad of points of view.
As for myself, I hope that our audience is left with feelings and questions bubbling up from their hearts and minds, even if for a moment. For every moment of impact through art is a catalyst for the future – being exposed to a new idea, a new feeling, or a new perspective helps change each and every one of us – including the performers. It is a symbiotic relationship available only in the arts, and only through that transcendent language of music, movement, and imagery. I hope that our audience comes away from Dialogues des Carmelites with one moment of connection – to a character, to a melody, to an image, to an idea – and that one connection changes them, if only to begin a dialogue.